“To Kill a Mockingbird”
Reinventing an iconic novel for the stage without altering the essential story is a difficult task, but that’s what Aaron Sorkin (of The West Wing fame) does with his play To Kill A Mockingbird 2018, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel of the same name, which was made into a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck.
The Bartlett Sher-directed production, which made a brief stop in Chicago this month on its first national tour, is very well acted and generally successful, starring Richard Thomas (of John-Boy in The Waltons) in the lead role of the small-town widower Lawyer Atticus Finch. However, the structure takes some getting used to.
While the novel is a coming-of-age story narrated by an adult Scout Finch looking back on her childhood, the play shares the narration between Scout (Melanie Moore), her older brother Jem (Justin Mark) and her wise friend Dill Harris (Steven Lee Johnson). All played by adults more or less imitating teenagers, the narrators build the scenes and backstories and address the audience directly before entering the action.
This intercession is useful because Sorkin’s script is decidedly non-linear. It bounces back and forth between the pivotal trial of a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman and the events before and after. In fact, it begins towards the end of the trial when the children are discussing the death of Bob Ewell (Joey Collins), the victim’s rabid racist father. Scout wonders how he could have fallen on his own knife, a mystery solved by an ending dealing with the meaning of justice.
Mockingbird is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1934, but Sorkin subtly updates it so it resonates today. The most obvious change is that Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch), the black man falsely accused of a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed, has more opportunity to explain his interaction with Mayella Ewell (Arianna Gayle Stucki). Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the housekeeper of the Finch’s Black, also becomes a moral conscience, voicing opinions that are not out of place today.
As Scout points out, Atticus and Calpurnia have an almost brother-sister relationship, to the point that when she is rightfully offended by something he says, he has to pester her to tell him what it was. It’s one of the many ways he’s portrayed as a flawed human being – a role Thomas takes on in all its complexity. This Atticus believes so strongly in his client’s innocence, the effectiveness of the justice system, and the fundamental goodness of people that he misjudges the outcome of the trial and its consequences.
He also has a parenting dilemma: He abhors racism, but he believes any man can be understood “if you crawl inside his head.” He teaches his children to be polite to everyone, even the mean, abusive Mrs. Henry Dubose (Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film). Atticus’ tendency to underestimate the evil in humans has potentially dire consequences for his family.
Despite a slightly uplifting (somewhat flat) finale that showcases goodness from an unexpected source, much of “Mockingbird” is pretty somber. However, Sorkin spices the dialogue with plenty of humor, including Atticus’ sarcasm and the witty comments from the sympathetic Judge Taylor (Richard Poe) in the courtroom. Some of my favorite scenes are quieter scenes that show things are not as they seem, including an encounter between the teenagers and Link Deas (Anthony Natale), the official town boozer who has suffered great losses for not being racist , and between Atticus and Dill, whose personal life was anything but idyllic.
Miriam Büther’s atmospheric stage design has many moving parts to facilitate the many scene changes, and the busyness can be distracting. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting helps create the requisite moods, as does the original score by Adam Guettel, which at times is reminiscent of hymns. Scott Lehrer’s sound and Ann Roth’s historical costumes complete the effective setting.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a rare serious drama in a sea of touring musicals, but it’s easy to see why it belongs on theatergoers’ “must see” lists.
James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St. Through May 29. $35-149. BroadwayInChicago.com
In Rasheeda Speaking, the late Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s 2014 play about racism in the workplace, Jaclyn (Deanna Reed-Foster) returns to the office of Dr. David Williams (Drew Schad) back. An employee for only six months, she attributes her illness to toxins emanating from the copy machine, the lab, and the environment. She fills the office with plants and even brings crystals for protection.
By the end of about 100 minutes, her colleague Ileen (Daria Harper) is paranoid and the atmosphere has become irrevocably toxic.
The chain of events meticulously detailed by Johnson, leading to a conclusion nobody wanted, is described by Dr. Williams, a smug white man who calls Ileen “Girl” and Jaclyn “Jackie”. dr Williams manipulates Ileen into taking notes on Jaclyn’s behavior to gather evidence for her firing, saying he only hired her to please HR.
Ileen is reluctant at first, Jaclyn is a friend and does her job well, but ultimately agrees, partly because Dr. Williams promoted her to office manager — of the two-person office — and gave her a raise. Ileen is white and Jaclyn is black.
But the playwright doesn’t go for simple black-and-white interpretations, at least not in the Shattered Globe Theater’s top-notch production, rigorously directed by AmBer D, Montgomery. Brilliantly portrayed by Reed-Foster, who understudyed the role in the world premiere at the Rivendell Theatre, Jaclyn is a working-class woman just trying to get by, although she isn’t particularly easy to like.
While the relationship with her colleague initially seems cordial, the underlying tension is palpable. She toys with Ileen’s head, for example by teasing her with racist stories about her Mexican neighbors, either because she is racist or thinks that’s what Ileen wants to hear. At the same time, she offers unwanted gifts and inappropriate praise.
As Jaclyn’s fear of losing her job grows, tensions at the workplace mount. When dotty Rose Saunders (Barbara Reeder Harris), an elderly patient with a pancreatic tumor, shows up for an early morning appointment, Jaclyn chides her for not reporting on the first floor, even though she walks with a cane. Ileen intervenes with Rose – whose own racism comes out in a comment about blacks being angry about slavery. Jaclyn claims to Dr. Williams that she was just following the protocols Ileen taught her.
The hostility continues to escalate until Ileen, egged on by her husband, starts carrying a gun into the office. Jaclyn’s frustration culminates in a lengthy monologue – which gives the play its name – about riding the Chicago Avenue bus to work, surrounded by young white professional men who have nothing but contempt for black women.
Scott Penner’s scenic design is reminiscent of a neutral office, with cream desks, blinds, and a hallway leading to the exam rooms. Jackie Fox’s lighting adds an antiseptic touch that might make anyone who hates doctors uneasy, as do costume designer Rea Brown’s gowns and other uniforms. The original music and sound design by Christopher Kriz complete a scary scene.
Aside from the length of Jaclyn’s monologue and a surreal drift towards the end, “Rasheeda Speaking” is an apt look at unfortunate office politics firmly grounded in reality, and much of the credit for that goes to Reed-Foster’s performance.
Shattered Globe Theater at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Until June 4th. $15-45. 773-975-8150, www.sgtheatre.org